Paul O'Doherty reviews the latest crop of wine books.
The New California Wine - A Guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste
Ten Speed Press
In his introduction, Bonné, the San Francisco Chronicle wine editor and writer for Decanter, Saveur and Food & Wine, tells us that the 'new California's winemakers share similar sensibilities: an enthusiasm for lessons learned from the Old World, but not the desire to replicate its wines; a mandate to seek out new grape varieties and regions; and perhaps most important, an ardent belief that place matters. They are true believers in terroir. This is crucial because California's future depends upon wines that show nuance, restraint and a deep evocation of place.' This is also pretty important as those to whom Bonné refers are on the margins of the market, a market which is run by the Big Three - Gallo, Constellation Wines and the Wine Group - who together are responsible for 64% of California's wine shipments. And that's before one even considers the power and influence of Fred Franzia's Bronco Wine Company (responsible for Two Buck Chuck) or the other four big players Trinchero, Kendall-Jackson, Delicato and Treasury Wine Estates. Or, to put it another way, Bonné is placing his confidence in a very small segment which, he believes, have it in them to significantly change how we view Californian wine.
The book itself is set out over three sections: exploring the new California; a California road-trip; and a search for the wines of the new California. The first part is a meet-and-greet of some of the winemakers Bonné is championing, including Ted Lemon, who runs Littorai on biodynamic principles, having honed his skills early in his career in Burgundy and is now a top Pinot Noir producer; and Abe Schoener, who runs the Scholium Project, and who is making unusual Verdelhos, a skin-fermented Sauvignon Blanc in tribute to a reclusive Italian prince and a copper-hued rosé from 130-year-old Cinsault. At this stage, Bonné revisits the history of the last century discussing the scar of Prohibition, the signs of revival post-Second World War, the Judgment of Paris, the branding of California that focused on growth, among other phenomena, exploring the theme that what California lacks in historical legacy it has tried to make up for with brashness and rigid science, an outlook that has created a clash between those who see 'winemaking as cultural expression' and those who view it as 'commercial endeavour'. He also takes a look at how farming has changed, focusing on much of what has been discovered and learnt working, not just in the winery but also in the vineyard ,whether it is embracing dry farming or farming against the sun, for example. This is particularly poignant for Bonné, who chides those American winemakers who see themselves solely as winemakers without first connecting with the land. He ruefully regrets that, while the French seem to have got their priorities right by not having a word for winemaker, the Californians, among others, have got it wrong by not having a word for vignernon.
There is also a substantial piece on grape varieties and how Californians are embracing many more unusual vines than going for the easy option of Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay. Clonal selection is also discussed along with the continuous fight against disease and virus; the price of land that is not conducive to younger winemakers getting into the early loops of the winemaking business; and how it is possible to make really good table wine that competes with the much bigger brands.
In the second section of his book, Bonné focuses on a road-trip around California talking up the concept of terroir while going through distinctive appellations whose terroir has not always been acknowledged. He points out that the cause was not necessarily helped by, say, winning the 'Judgement of Paris' with Chateau Montelena's 1973 Chardonnay that wasn't even made with the fruit of a single appellation: it was a blend from Napa and Sonoma. Over 30 years later, and despite the implementation of the American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), Bonné acknowledges that the system 'seems erratic and freewheeling' and, the 'whole truth about California's terroir is far from being discovered'.
Finally, in his concluding section Bonné investigates the wine itself looking at the grape varieties in relation to such issues as whole-cluster fermentation for Pinot Noir and where best to plant it; Syrah's moment of crisis and problems with positioning; the steely side of Chardonnay; the move away from the muscle-bound Cabernet Sauvignons to a more subtle, classic definition; an appraisal of where to source the best wines from top producers; a section on 'most noticeable wines'; and a look at the newer vines making a name for themselves. The book is finished with a number of maps of California's regions pinpointing where most vineyards are situated.
This is a superbly written book from the get-go in a style that flows seamlessly across the page, offering a well-balanced view of what is happening on the ground from a writer who seems to have captured the zeitgeist of a paradigm shift. It's up there with the best books of the year.
Sonoma Wine and the Story of Buena Vista
Charles L Sullivan
Wine Appreciation Guild
Written at the behest of Jean-Charles Boisset who runs Boisset, La Famille des Grands Vins/Boisset Family Estates, (which has concerns in Burgundy and around the world including Buena Vista in Sonoma), and with a foreword by Ravenswood Winery's Joel Peterson, this book by an eminent California wine historian begins by stating Sullivan's ambition to incorporate the story of Buena Vista into the grander narrative of Sonoma Valley. He begins with an all-compassing history of the early period and the birth of California, charting the planting of Listán Prieto (discovered in 2007 to be genetically identical to the Mission grape); the arrival of the Franciscans in the late 18th century; the Russians planting the first vines on the North Coast; the importance of the California Farmer and its owner James LL Warren; the Bear Flag revolt; the Gold Rush; the arrival of the international varieties; and the devastation wrecked by phylloxera. Intertwined into this story is that of the pioneering Buena Vista Winery, founded by the Hungarian Agoston Haraszthy in 1857, regarded as one of the oldest wineries in California,
As Sullivan's story evolves, we witness the gradual arrival of the European varieties that would replace the shortcomings of Mission with quality vines capable of greatness. Sullivan also provides us with Haraszthy's back story, reminding us for instance that Haraszthy was never a Count and possibly never a Colonel, both of which titles he regularly claimed. Having built the vineyard up, during a financial crisis in the 1860s he had to form the Buena Vista Vinicultural Society and take in investors to bail the vineyard out. A while later he was quietly ousted and died in mysterious circumstance in Nicaragua, possibly having fallen into a river renowned for its alligators. His body was never found.
Sullivan, who has previously written a number of books on the region and its grapes (including A Companion to California Wine, Napa Wine and Zinfandel: A History of a Grape and its Wine), interweaves all of this into the histories of California, Sonoma and Buena Vista, focusing on the 19th century. In fact it's not until page 237 of the 350 that we reach the 20th century, giving the reader some indication of where Sullivan's strength lies. In the later section, Sullivan recalls the devastation caused by the fire following the San Francisco earthquake and the arguments and events surrounding Prohibition and its repeal. There is also a listing of the Sonoma wineries in the 1930s and a look at the various owners of Buena Vista up to the present, including Frank Bartholomew who bought it at auction in 1941, Vernon Underwood's Young Market Company which bought it in 1968, the West German wine and spirits company A Racke who took it over in 1979, Allied Domecq who bought it in 2001, up to the present owners Boisset Family Estates. All of this Sullivan tells in a languid style that's matter-of-fact and to the point if a little monotonous at times. You do wish for a better pace and for the narrative to rattle the history a little less stolidly and show a bit more emotion.
That said, in essence, it's a solid history of the last 150 years of life in and around Buena Vista and one that will be of interest to Sonoma history enthusiasts.
World of Niagara Wine
Michael Ripmeester, Philip Gordon Mackintosh and Christopher Fullerton (editors)
Wilfrid Laurier University Press
In the editors' introduction to this well-put-together overview of Niagara wine, the point is made that 'ultimately, our intent here is not to provide a comprehensive introduction to Niagara wine: such an undertaking exceeds our purpose, and could only end in disappointment'. I can assure them they are wrong. For any team of editors or writers looking at how best to showcase what is going on in a particular region, this is as good a blueprint as any. It's particularly encouraging that so much work has gone into this, considering that outside Canada, with the exception of its ice wines, Niagara is not exactly well known. For those that might not be au fait with the Niagara peninsula, it is the centre of Ontario's wine production and has a number of relative newly sub-appellations. It is also Canada's largest wine region, with a unique microclimate that is driven by the interaction of the Niagara Escarpment with Lake Ontario.
The three editors (who are all faculty members of the department of geography at Brock University in Ontario with research interests in the growing importance of the grape and the wine industry) have assembled sections on the early history of grapes and wine in Niagara; the preliminary influence of Government regulation; the growing importance of wine in the economic development of the region; the history of the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA); the position of Niagara wines in the marketplace; the Ontario wine industry; the role of migrant workers in viticulture; geographical techniques that have been galvanised to improve vineyard management; a climatic analysis of the Niagara peninsula; the region's soils; ice wine; how wine is marketed in the region along with wine and culinary tourism; and the various conflicts that emerge vis-à-vis the wine industry's interest in the public space of the countryside and the response from the rural community.
Overall this is an excellent study of the Niagara wine industry that while academic at times and heavily populated with different voices across the separate sections (some of which you'll prefer to others), it's still a cracking read and a blueprint for other regions to flag the story of their region - warts and all.
American Wine Economics - An Exploration of the US Wine Industry
University of California Press
Since the economic meltdown a few years back and the on-going stresses of austerity since, the average Joe or Joanna is nowadays far savvier about how the world runs economically. Words and phrases such as triple-A rating, bailout, burn the bond holders, credit crunch, leveraging, naked short-selling and sub-prime mortgages have entered our personal lexicons. Bearing this in mind, this overview of the economics of wine is particularly well-timed. It focuses on the organisation, structure and institutional features of the American wine industry with respect to how grape growers, wine producers, distributors, retailers and consumers interact. Written by James Thornton, professor of economics at Eastern Michigan University and a member of the American Association of Wine Economists, it's a fascinating study that shines a light on the wine industry's economic importance, how it is structured, government regulation, and the various wine companies who make up the industry. It also investigates the important concepts and principles that form the bedrock of any study of the wine industry and examines what Thornton sees as the complex nature of wine and wine quality.
The book goes through the essentials of viticulture, vinification and distribution, including the various decisions and concessions that go into making wine, from harvesting methods and yields to cost and quality. We are exposed to the nuts and bolts of supply and demand and the worry and exhilaration that goes with experiencing boom and bust. Thornton also scrutinises the pivotal role of the winemaker in determining style, substance and economic success. We see where bulk wine and own-label bottlings fit in to the marketplace and are treated to an analysis of the relentless rise in the alcoholic strength of American wine, among many other topics.
Much of the detail on viticulture and vinification will hardly be news to most wine enthusiasts. What might be less well known are the economics and the theory that goes with it. That's not to say that this is a difficult book to read, it's not. In fact, it flies along at a decent pace even though you may have to trudge through stretches of familiar material before you get to the juicy economic bits. Overall, there's a lot to like about this particular take on American wine economics and for that reason it is also one of my books of the year.
American Wine - The Ultimate Companion to the Wines and Wine Producers of the USA
Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy
It's been a bit of bumper harvest this season for wine books on North America, and with quality in bucketfuls. This particular 'ultimate companion' adds to the growing sense that American wine-making and consumption is on the rise and that the country as a whole is experiencing a wine revolution. This book begins with a short history of wine in America, from the arrival of the French Huguenots to the devastation and madness of Prohibition. Within a couple of pages mention is made of the Judgment of Paris; the sweet wines from California's Central Valley that made E & J Gallo and United Vintners part of their fortunes; and the phenomenon of white Zinfandel. In the pages that follow there is an analysis of the grape varieties grown in America; the various diseases and pests they have to contend with; a piece on the American Viticultural Areas (AVAs); a breakdown of what to expect written on the front and back of a typical label; as well as a consideration of new winemaking.
What follows is a state-by-state investigation of wine in America beginning in California and working across America, for west to east, giving unusual space to some of the winemaking states about which we hear rarely. Thus, Oregon follows Washington into Idaho, etc, arriving in New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland 200-odd pages later. Each section is gorgeously photographed - the book itself is glossy, easy-to-read and well laid out - to accompany a succinct introspection of the essence of each state through, for example, its history, grape varieties, climate, the impact of organic and biodynamic farming, water supply and irrigation, and where environmentalists stand on the encroachment of the countryside by the ever greater demand for wine.
Each section also has a short boxed 'snapshot' giving the overall vineyard acreage, the most-planted varieties, number of AVAs, number of wineries and the protocols for wine tourism. Each segment is partnered with a map of the region, similar to those that have appeared in The World Atlas of Wine (by Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson). If one were being picky, one could argue that some of the maps are difficult to read, although how one could do it any differently - marking the individual sites within the constraints of such a tight boundary in California and its internal environs, for example, more visible and easier to read - is probably a conundrum for a next-generation designer alongside the chronology protection conjecture or what constitutes an 'ecumenical matter' in Father Ted.
The book also contains features on well-known winemakers such as Jess Jackson (Kendall-Jackson), Robert Mondavi (Robert Mondavi Winery), Allen Shoup (Chateau Ste Michelle) and David Lake (Coumbia Winery), among others, along with pieces on protecting the old-vine heritage, Napa Valley Vintners, the cult of personality, the French invasion of Washington state, and urban wineries, among others. Overall, it's a well-written and stylish analysis, complimented by a classy layout and fabulous photography and includes as much as you'd expect in an encyclopaedic volume of this size. It also sure to be the 'go-to' volume for the next few years.